How Big Was That Deer?

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

Humans have recorded their hunting stories for thousands of years, as evidenced by the drawings of deer on cave walls. In a sense, those murals were the world's first outdoor magazines, and judging by the drawings, those ancient hunters valued deer with big antlers.

Look at today's hunting magazines, and you see things haven't changed much. People - hunters and non-hunters alike - are still fascinated by impressive, trophy-class racks.

According to surveys conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation, the white-tailed deer is our most popular wild animal among hunters and wildlife watchers. Missouri deer hunters spend many days in the woods in hopes of just seeing the so-called "buck of a lifetime." Actually taking such a buck is a great achievement for any hunter fortunate enough to get the chance.

Of course, deer hunting is more than just a search for a deer with big antlers. It includes camaraderie, woodsmanship and a close connection with nature, as well as the chance to procure a large amount of fine-tasting venison.

Hunting is also a cultural tradition. Even now, it remains a rite of passage for thousands of Missouri youths, both male and female. The hunt has been coded into our genetics since our arrival on Earth.

Although you can't eat antlers, they still fascinate hunters. A set of antlers large enough to display seems to acknowledge and honor the majesty of white-tailed deer.

Antlers are not the same as horns, even though some people casually use the two words interchangeably. Horns are a product of the skin that grow continuously and are not shed and regrown each year. Antlers, on the other hand, are bony outgrowths of the skull that are lost and regrown annually. Antler growth occurs at the tip of the antler rather than at the base, as with horn growth. White-tailed deer have antlers, and cattle have horns.

The antler has unusual biological characteristics, too. Antler is unique because it is the only completely regenerating appendage found in mammals. It consists of bone that is laid down during the spring and summer by an outer coating of skin called velvet. Covered by a dense mat of fine hair, the velvet is laced with blood vessels that supply it with nourishment to grow. The velvet dries up and is shed in late summer or early fall to expose a hardened bony antler. Hormone levels direct growth, hardening and shedding of antlers. These hormone levels vary

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